The Redesigning Of America


    Samsung Camera

    Photograph for TIME by Robert Clark
    DESIGNER TRASH: Sales of Umbra wastebaskets have passed the 2 million mark

    Back in 1960, an obscure Dutch cultural critic named Constant Nieuwenhuys predicted that someday we would all become architects. Stuck in a world where everything looked the same, he suggested, we would be so alienated from our environment by technology that we would constantly redesign the space around us just to recover the joy of living.

    Nieuwenhuys was wrong about only one thing. We're not alienated at all. Here we are, roaring into the 21st century, powered by the longest economic boom in U.S. history, wired to the Web and to one another, thirstily consuming new technology even before we know how to use it. In the frenzy of perpetual motion we want to re-create the space around us, not as our only joy but because we can, and because that way it's our space. We're snapping up translucent blueberry-tinted computers, bubbled cars and little chrome cell phones as fast as they can be produced. We're fully employed, and we want something to show for it, even if we're not Internet billionaires. So where design used to be considered vaguely precious, the province of the Sub-Zero-refrigerator-owning elite, it's now available to all--from the crowd that shops at Target to those aesthetes who can pick out an Enzo Mari from 20 paces. If we learned anything from the barbaric old '80s, we learned that more is not enough. We want better--or at least better looking.

    Ladies and gentlemen, may we present the design economy. It is the crossroads where prosperity and technology meet culture and marketing. These days efficient manufacturing and intense competition have made "commodity chic" not just affordable but also mandatory. Americans are likely to appreciate style when they see it and demand it when they don't, whether in boutique hotels or kitchen scrub brushes. "Design is being democratized," says Karim Rashid, designer of the Oh chair by Umbra and winner of a 1999 George Nelson award for breakthrough furniture design. "Our entire physical landscape has improved, and that makes people more critical as an audience." And more willing. Says Mark Dziersk, president of the Industrial Designers Society of America: "This is the new Golden Age of design."

    Make that platinum, because design has become big Big Business. Nobody is quite sure how big, but just consider that Americans spent some $6 trillion on goods and services last year, and roughly one-fifth of it went into buying stuff for their homes. The stunning success of the colorful (read: No more beige!) iMac, for instance, not only helped save Apple but has also inspired a raft of whimsically styled, low-cost personal computers from firms like Dell, Gateway and Compaq. The New Beetle rescued Volkswagen's image two years ago and became a catalyst for change in the auto business. Carmakers are finally putting a premium on how their products look because they know that otherwise we won't buy them anymore.

    So it is with makers of just about everything. "When industries are competing at equal price and functionality, design is the only differential that matters," says Dziersk, echoing the credo first spouted in the '30s by Raymond Loewy, father of industrial design. Loewy was the man who gave America the Lucky Strike pack and the sleek Greyhound bus, and when he added a flourish to the Coldspot refrigerator, to make it look just a little more streamlined than its 1934 competitors, Sears' sales skyrocketed.

    Loewy used to say that the most beautiful curve was a rising sales graph, and that notion has driven design since he was in shorts. Good design married commerce during the Great Depression, and Loewy's career took off then because he made products irresistible at a time when nobody really wanted to pay for anything. In the '50s, Charles and Ray Eames led a cohort of Californians who used postwar manufacturing capacity to create sleek, efficient domestic environs. In the '60s, however, industrial design seemed to lose its way and end up in the mire of an American consumer sensibility that simply wanted more products for less money, from which it began to emerge only in the '90s.

    Now, instead of one Raymond Loewy, the design world is humming with an eclectic mix of impresarios and entrepreneurs intent on earning a living from making the beautiful things in your life. There are big corporate players, like Sony and Ford and Philips, the European electronics consortium. There are architects and designers--iconoclasts like Philippe Starck and young upstarts like Jasper Morrison or Marc Newson. Or businessmen like David Neeleman, whose no-frills but chic airline, JetBlue, began flying last month. And of course there's Martha Stewart, who has parlayed her sense of style into a multidimensional billion-dollar role as America's spokesperson for taste. Martha's line of home furnishings helped wipe the red ink off the bottom line of the discount department chain K Mart.

    If anyone believes in America's new appetite for design it is Terence Conran, Britain's style impresario. Twenty years ago, Conran launched a Stateside chain of catchy furniture stores in his name, but he jumped ship early in the '90s. Now he's back, determined to catch the new wave. In December he opened a 22,500-sq.-ft. store in Manhattan. Like its counterparts in London, Paris and Tokyo, the Terence Conran Shop is a design bazaar, with everything from $17 digital watches to $3,550 violet-colored lounges. "I never quite understood why design didn't take off in America before," says Conran, who is cautiously optimistic this time around. "There really is a wind of change here now. America is about technology, being proud of achieving so much and confident about having a culture that reflects that."

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